Published on October 23, 2012 by Amy
The Timucua were a Native American people who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida and southeast Georgia. They were the largest indigenous group in that area and consisted of about 35 chiefdoms, many leading thousands of people. The various groups of Timucua spoke several dialects of the Timucua language. At the time of European first contact, the territory occupied by speakers of Timucuan dialects occupied about 19,200 square miles (50,000 km2), and was home to between 50,000 and 200,000 Timuacans. It stretched from the Altamaha River and Cumberland Island in present-day Georgia as far south as Lake George in central Florida, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Aucilla River in the Florida Panhandle, though it reached the Gulf of Mexico at no more than a couple of points.
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The name “Timucua” (from Thimogona) came from the exonym used by the Saturiwa (of what is now Jacksonville) to refer to the Utina, another group to the west of the St. Johns River. The Spanish came to use the term more broadly for other peoples in the area. Eventually it became the common term for all peoples who spoke what is known as the Timucuan language.
While alliances and confederacies arose between the chiefdoms from time to time, the Timucua were never organized into a single political unit. The various groups of Timucua speakers practiced several different cultural traditions. The people suffered severely from the introduction of Eurasian infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity. By 1595, their population was estimated to have been reduced from 200,000 to 50,000 and only thirteen chiefdoms remained. By 1700, the population of the tribe had been reduced to 1000. Warfare against them by the English colonists and native allies completed their extinction as a tribe soon after the turn of the 19th century.
The word “Timucua” may derive from “Thimogona” or “Tymangoua”, an exonym used by the Saturiwa tribe for their enemies, the Utina. Both groups spoke dialects of the Timucua language. The French followed the Saturiwa in this usage, but the Spanish applied the term “Timucua” much more widely to groups within a wide section of interior North Florida. In the 16th century they designated the area north of the Santa Fe River between the St. Johns River and the Suwannee River (roughly the area of the group known as the Northern Utina) as the Timucua Province, which they incorporated into the mission system. The dialect spoken in that province became known as “Timucua” (now usually known as “Timucua proper”). During the 17th century, the Province of Timucua was extended to include the area between the Suwannee River and the Aucilla River, thus extending its scope. Eventually, “Timucua” was applied to all speakers of the various dialects of the Timucua language.
The pre-Columbian era was marked by regular, routine, and probably small tribal wars with neighbors. The Timucua were a large and powerful group, made up of as many as 35 chiefdoms, each of which had hundreds of people in assorted villages within its purview. They sometimes formed loose political alliances, but did not operate as a single political unit.
The Timucua may have been the first American natives to see the landing of Juan Ponce de León near St. Augustine in 1513. Later, in 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition passed along the western fringes of the Timucua territory.
In 1539, Hernando de Soto led an army of more than 500 men through the western parts of Timucua territory, stopping in a series of villages of the Ocale, Potano, Northern Utina, and Yustaga branches of the Timucua on his way to the Apalachee domain (see list of sites and peoples visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition for other sites visited by de Soto). His army seized the food stored in the villages, took women for consorts[clarification needed], and forced men and boys to serve as guides and bearers. The army fought two battles with Timucua groups, resulting in heavy Timucua casualties. De Soto was in a hurry to reach the Apalachee domain, where he expected to find gold and sufficient food to support his army through the winter. He did not linger in Timucua territory. De Soto quick departure from Timcuan territory was prompted by an effective guerrilla defense organized by the warrior chieftain Acuera, whose people beheaded fourteen of the invading conquistadors while suffering relatively few casualties compared to the massacres unleashed by the Spaniards in other places.
In 1564, French Huguenots led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière founded Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville and attempted to establish further settlements along the St. Johns River. After initial conflict, the Huguenots established friendly relations with the local natives in the area, primarily the Timucua under the cacique Saturiwa. Sketches of the Timucua drawn by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, one of the French settlers, have proven valuable resources for modern ethnographers in understanding the people. The next year the Spanish under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés surprised the Huguenots and ransacked Fort Caroline, killing everyone but 50 women and children and 26 escapees. The rest of the French had been shipwrecked off the coast and picked up by the Spanish, who executed all but 20 of them; this brought French settlement in Florida nearly to an end. These events caused a rift between the natives and Spanish, though Spanish missionaries were soon out in force.
The Timucua history changed after the Spanish established St. Augustine in 1565 as the capital of their province of Florida. From here, Spanish missionaries established missions in each main town of the Timucuan chiefdoms, including the Santa Isabel de Utinahica mission in southern Georgia, for the Utinahica. By 1595, the Timucuan population had shrunk by 75%, primarily from epidemics of new infectious diseases introduced by contact with Europeans, and war.
By 1700, the Timucuan population had been reduced to just 1000. In 1703 the British with the Creek, Catawba, and Yuchi began killing and enslaving hundreds of the Timucua. Seventeen years later their number had dropped to just 250. In 1726 there were 176, and by 1752 only 26 remained. By the time the United States acquired Florida in 1821, only five or fewer Timucua remained. They became extinct as a people.